I were only nine years old in 1935, born and raised in Harlen, Oklahoma. I ain’t changed much since then. As the sayin’ goes, old age is a second childhood. Some things I don’t remember at all, and other things I remember like it were somethin’ that happened yesterday.
That stuff blowin’ across Main Street weren’t no dust and we didn’t live in no bowl, not a bowl you could see by lookin’ ‘bout Harlen, Oklahoma anyways. It were dry earth that was driftin’ ‘cross the street, top soil from the farms and fields carried by the wind, often in what were dirt-storms that swept across the plains killin’ practically anything that had been growin’ there. Harlen County were as flat as a pancake to begin with, and the storms skimmed the top layer off it like a razor shavin’ off whiskers. We had a farm about ten miles from town. Pa had grown wheat and corn and raised a small herd of cattle on our place until first the depression came along in 1929, and then the dust storms started sweepin’ away farms and towns all across the plains in about 1930. But I weren’t nothin’ but a baby when it all began. Pa and Ma held onto the farm – if by 1935 it could be called that – by doin’ anything that put a few dollars in the jar to keep food in our bellies and hold off the bank from takin’ the land. Pa was a mechanic and fixed anything with an engine that needed fixin’. Ma raised chickens and sold the eggs, which is how I got the nickle it took to get me in the Spectacle, the movie house on Main Street in Harlen. It had seats ‘nough for about thirty, but you could sit on the floor if you had a mind to if all the seats were taken. It made no nevermind to Yates Every who owned the theater as long as you gave him the nickle. It were while I was in line watchin’ the dirt blowin’ ‘cross the street the first time I remember seein’ Mr. Empty Pockets. He were standin’ at the end of the street doin’ nothin’ but starin’ at me as if I had grown two heads. He were there for only a few minutes and I didn’t say nothin’ ‘bout it to my two older brothers who were in line with me, but I saw him sure-enough. It were The Bride of Frankenstein we seen that day and by the time we come out of the theater I was thinkin’ ‘bout the Frankenstein monster and feelin’ sorry for him, scary as he were, and didn’t give another thought to Mr. Empty Pockets.
Pa picked us up after the movie, lettin’ me ride in the back of the truck with my brothers, somethin’ Ma wouldn’t have approved of, me bein’ kinda small and scrawny for my age, so I promised Pa I wouldn’t tell her. There weren’t much to do in the back of the truck ‘cept see how ruined the landscape were and how many properties had been left empty, the houses collapsin’ in on themselves from neglect or being stripped of anythin’ resemblin’ a house by the strong winds and dirt, as a lot of folks who lived in Harlen moved to California or Oregon, leavin’ most everything they once owned behind. My brothers spent the time punchin’ one ‘nother in the arm tryin’ to make the other one of them say “ow” first, but they left me alone, my bare feet buried in the hay that Pa had spread out and hangin’ on to the edge of the truck bed. My shoes were tied ‘round my neck by the shoe laces, dangling on my chest like dead gophers. I didn’t wear them that often anyways and only did so when Ma said I had to, like when I went into town.
“We’re poor folk, but civilized,” she’d always say.
When we pulled into the driveway leadin’ to the house, chickens that strayed from Ma’s coops barely missed bein’ run over. Pa called them the stupidest birds on the planet. He slowed down as Ma came out of the house, waving her hands, pointing east. Far off, but easy to discern, was the wall of a dust storm barreling over the land, headin’ straight for Harlen County. My brothers and I jumped from the truck before it came to stop and ran about scoopin’ up chickens in our arms. When Pa got out of the truck he covered it with a tarp just as he always did just before a storm struck.
“If we ever have to leave Harlen, we can’t do it on foot if the engine is ruined,” he’d say.
It weren’t until the chickens were tucked away in the coops, the well was covered, and I was the last one about to enter the house that I saw Mr. Empty Pockets again. He was standin’ in the bare earth not far from the house where corn had once grown. I couldn’t clearly make out his face, but something told me he was smilin’ at me. I raised my hand and slowly waved. He took his hands out of his coat pockets and waved back.
Then dirt began blow across our farm. Just a little at first.
Pa and Ma pulled the shutters and covered the windows with the satin sheets Grandma and Grandpa had given them on their wedding day. Ma had kept the sheets in her cedar chest until the first dust storm hit. She cut them into squares to fit the size of the windows. They were never returned to her chest after that. Pa boarded up the chimney and jammed rags under the door. We turned on the radio knowin’ there wouldn’t be a peep about the storm, but listenin’ to Amos and Andy made us all feel a bit better as we awaited the storm. When the wind picked up, which seemed to always happen just before the full force of the storm shook the house, my brothers and I sat on the sofa as Ma sat on a kitchen chair across from us. With her back stiffened, and her long hair hastily tied into a bun on the top of her head, she turned off the radio and opened the Bible.
“And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting,” she read.
Pa stood at the door, his shoulder braced against it, as if expectin’ it to fly open at any second. And then the soil and debris that had been picked up from the farms and fields smashed against the house.
There ain’t been nothin’ in my long life like those storms.
The mornin’ after, Ma fixed scrambled eggs and baking soda biscuits. Although the radio was playin’ in the living room, there was a quietness in the house as if the storm had muffled all sound. Even my usually noisy brothers were quiet. Pa had left the house earlier to see if any additional damage had been done to the house, particularly the chimney that was already leaning, or to the silos that stood battered and empty in the fields. Pa was certain they would be used again one day. Rats inhabited them by the thousands, livin’ off the remaining grain and corn after the rest of it was hauled away. He took with him his rifle, always on the lookout for a rabbit, though they had become scarce and always nearing starvation, but Ma was able to make good rabbit stew from them anyways. It was Sunday, which didn’t matter to Pa. Unlike Ma, he wasn’t one much for reading the Bible or attendin’ church. Ma had on the one goin’-to-church dress she had left and my brothers and I wore pretty much what we always wore, but Ma slicked our hair down with spit and pomade and combed it before we sat down to breakfast. Once we finished eatin’ all that was left was to wait on Earlean and Roy Cummins to pick us up in their old Ford and drive us all to the Baptist Church in Curlyville, the next town over, about twenty miles away.
We were standing on the front porch, waiting to be picked up, when the sound of a rifle shot echoed from the fields. My brothers stopped punchin’ each other and Ma stood up from the rocking chair she had been sittin’ in.
I turned the direction that the shot came from. There were Mr. Empty Pockets standin’ at the end of the porch, his finger to his lips as if tellin’ me to say nothin’ about him bein’ there, as if I needed to be told that. It was the first chance I had to really look at him. He wore a long trench coat, like a character in a James Cagney movie gangster, and a gray Fedora. His face weren’t nothin’ special. A face like any other. But he was smilin’, a smile as big and wide as the sky. He weren’t there long, disappearin’ the moment we heard Pa’s voice. He were howlin’ like a hound.
It took all of us to carry Pa back to the house and lay him in the bed, leaving his rifle in the field where it had been found lying next to him. The gunshot wound in his side was bleedin’ somethin’ fierce. Ma boiled water and then rushed about the house findin’ cloth that she tore into strips and applied to the injury. She shut the bedroom door after tellin’ my oldest brother to run and bring back Doc Hudson, who lived three miles away. Doc was old and no longer had his shingle out, but he was the only one we knew who might know how to save Pa’s life. A few minutes after my brother took off running across the fields as my other brother and I stood on the porch, Mr. and Mrs. Cummins drove up. My brother told them what had happened. Mrs. Cummins rushed into the house to help Ma. Mr. Cummins got back into his car, turned it ‘round, and sped off, also to get Doc Hudson. My brother sat down on the porch steps and began to whittle a pine stick he had traded a bag of dead grasshoppers for with Jim Kyler a few days before.
It was then that Mr. Empty Pockets appeared again and stood a few feet away from the side of the porch. I jumped down and walked right up to him, as pretty as you please, and held out my hand to shake his. He took it in his and that’s when he taught me how to fly.
There weren’t nothin’ like lookin’ down from the sky and seein’ the earth stripped of anything that would grow in the ground. It was that first time when flyin’ above Harlen County that I asked him his name and he said back, “What would you like to call me?”
I thought about it for only a second before saying. “Mr. Empty Pockets.”
“Are you sure?” he said.
“Pa always says never trust a man these days whose pockets are full,” I said.
Bein’ able to fly whenever I had the mind to came in handy. That night, after Doc Hudson had sewn up Pa’s side but warned Pa might not make it ‘cause of the amount of blood he lost, without puttin’ a foot on the floor, I flew to my bed that I shared with my brothers. I lay there all night, tryin’ to sleep, but my thoughts kept wanderin’ to why no one but me seemed to see Mr. Empty Pockets, or could fly, but maybe no one else mentioned him on purpose or that they could fly, just like me. Seein’ a man who suddenly appeared and disappeared and bein’ able to fly over the ruined fields were difficult things to imagine bringin’ up in any conversation. When rays of hazy morning sunlight shone through the window, I leapt out of bed and ran to Ma and Pa’s bedroom. Earlean Cummins was slumped in a chair, sound asleep. In her lap were one of Ma’s large tin pans filled with bloody rags. Ma was sittin’ on the edge of the bed. She smiled at me, and as if she could read my mind, silently mouthed, “Your Pa is goin’ to be okay.”
Three weeks later, Pa was mostly healed, but he moved about a bit slow and said that occasionally a twang of pain shot through his stitched wound like the jolt you get from ice touchin’ a cavity in a tooth. It were early Saturday and Ma gave me and my brothers each a nickle to go to the movies, but said we’d have to hitch a ride or walk there and back. My brothers tore out of the house as if they had been set on fire, ran to the road, and began to walk with their thumbs stuck out, waitin’ for any vehicle headin’ for town to happen by. I kept at a distance, not wantin’ them to see me rise up from the ground to fly over their heads and straight to the front doors of the Spectacle. Mr. Empty Pockets was walkin’ beside me, but he weren’t sayin’ much. He never did. The sky had that yellow jaundiced look it always got when it was fillin’ up with dirt blown from far away. There weren’t a storm in sight, though. When a truck stopped to pick up my brothers, I waved them on, preferring to fly the rest of the way. Two hours later I landed on my feet right in front of the movie house.
Yates Every was standing at the doors, collecting the nickles. “You got here just in time for the cartoons,” he said as he held out his hand.
I turned to say goodbye to Mr. Empty Pockets, but he were gone already.
The cartoon were a Mickey Mouse and the movie playin’ were Captain Blood. I couldn’t get inside fast enough. I quickly pressed my nickle into his sweaty palm and dashed into the theater. For the next two hours I forgot all about Mr. Empty Pockets or flyin’. I don’t know where my brothers were sittin’ but I was glad I weren’t near ‘em. How they jabbed and poked one ‘nother pretendin’ they were duelin’ durin’ sword fightin’ scenes in movies bothered the bejesus outta me. Half way through the movie, Yates shut it off, turned up the lights, and told us all to go home. “A storm is comin’.”
I couldn’t find my brothers in the crush of people, mostly kids, leaving the movie house. Standin’ on the sidewalk alone and lookin’ for ‘em I figured they had already found someone to hitch a ride home with, which was okay by me. I’d fly home with Mr. Empty Pockets.
That storm raced toward Harlen like a freight train. As happened in some of them storms, lightning flashed across the sky, caught in the curls of dirt that Pa said was like waves in the ocean that he once saw when he were in the war and went to some place called France. I was spittin’ dirt and sneezin’ it from my nose even before I got out of the town limits. I told Mr. Empty Pockets that we should begin flyin’ home, but he said’, “Not yet. You have to face some storms head on.”
I weren’t no more than a half mile out of town, when the storm winds caught me, and like I were just another bit of dirt, it picked me up and carried me over miles of fields. I didn’t even have the chance to think about flyin’ out of that storm. Mr. Empty Pockets had abandoned me.
It were Pa who found me a day later lying unconscious on a piece of tin that had been blown off the top of a silo as if I had been laid there as gently as a newborn baby. He carried me home and for the next four days sat at my bedside while Ma nursed me back to health. I gave up flyin’, preferrin’ to stay as close to the ground as possible. Those storms continued for about the next year or so, and it took years for everything to return to normal, or as close to it as things could get, but by then another war was brewin’. I didn’t see Mr. Empty Pockets again after I was carried off by that storm until about a year ago. He weren’t changed much, but as I said, neither have I.